ByAkeela Al-Hameed, writer at
Official Creators account for Akeela Al-Hameed, MMA bantamweight based in Minnesota
Akeela Al-Hameed

I guess I’ve always liked to fight.

My brother and I fought our cousins in Fort Dodge, Iowa to see who was the toughest. My dad and 15 of his brothers and sisters migrated there from Georgia, so we had a lot of cousins to go through.

I fought boys and girls, no sweat. I was always big and strong, stronger than most girls. As strong as a lot of the boys. When we moved east, my brother and I kept it going, fighting the kids at MLK park off Nicollet in Minneapolis. I didn’t believe in a fair fight back then, so when my brother fought I jumped in. When I fought he jumped in. Sometimes it was over sneakers, sometimes about whose hair looked stupid. Sometimes it just erupted out of a basketball game.

Didn’t matter. It was fun. I wasn’t angry and neither was he. I laugh now when I think about it.

I joined the Army reserves in 2011 because I wasn’t doing anything good. Nothing too bad, but nothing worthwhile. I knew I needed a change, so I walked into the Army recruiter’s office and they signed me up on the spot.

Three months later, I was deployed me to Afghanistan, which turned out to be nothing more than a hostile work out camp. I met a man who trained at Spartan Martial Arts in St. Paul just before I deployed and he said to me:

“You look like you can kick some ass. You should come to our gym.”

I kept that in mind while in Afghanistan. I hung a duffel bag full of sand from a railing and beat that up when I wasn’t breaking down firebases and shipping the parts somewhere else, or dodging the constant creeping from the male soldiers out there.

The Army warned us that Afghan nationals might make advances toward the female soldiers, but it wasn’t them. It was our fellow soldiers we had to worry about. It was constant. They’d try and escort us back to the barracks from the gym—nothing but a tent with some weights in it—or just try and make small talk at every opportunity. Having sex with a fellow soldier will get you sent back home real quick, but that didn’t stop them. A gay friend of mine showed me his Grindr app and the screen was covered in red dots hovering around our base.

I spent my energy in the gym, punching my duffel bag, and getting really, really big.

Embrace the Suck

When I got back to Minnesota I went straight to Spartan and got beat up. I had the athleticism, but Kelly Schmitz (née Kobold) had everything else. I came back and she beat me up some more. I thought I was tough, but when you step into a place like this, or any gym really, you get humbled real fast. I started putting the hours in.

Jiu jitsu can suck. It’s a fucking grind and there aren’t many women at my gym who roll. I never wrestled before, so I was just getting destroyed by these dudes: knee in my chest, punch me in my neck, cross face the shit out of me. I’d end up crying on the mat, wondering what was wrong with me, and then Ryan, the world class brown belt, yelled at me to shut the fuck up and just roll.

I’m learning to embrace the suck, then suddenly I'm recognizing that I’m about to get guillotined, then I started doing it to other people. I competed in my first BJJ tournament after being here four months and won gold. So far I’m 22-0 in BJJ matches. The guys here have a different type of strength, and rolling with them all day made me stronger. At one tournament I had 10 matches in one day and all I heard from the girls was, ‘she’s so strong!’

My first kickboxing match was an eye opener, dealing with all of the people watching me fight. You can’t just stop fighting, you have to keep going. I won by decision, but I had gone in trying to kill her. Back to the gym. More hours.

I lost my only fight to date at the TBA tournament in Des Moines in 2015 because I didn’t have any sense of urgency, no meanness to me. It felt like I was just playing around so I lost the decision. That motivated more than any win. I went back in 2016 and won that tournament.

Simmering Just Right

I have a long way before I can go pro. I have a lot of amateur fights left. I have to learn how to meld it all together—coach says I have all the right ingredients but it just isn’t simmering right yet.

I’m doing this full time now though, so every fight I improve by leaps and bounds. My last fight, at RFA 45 in Mystic Lake, Minn., I was still putting the pieces together, but it felt good. Coach told me to win by just enough, but I think I did enough to finish her. She still kept coming though. That’s something coach says a lot: don’t try too hard, don’t overthink it. If you hit someone as hard as you can and they don't go down, you shouldn’t panic. Just let it go. Let the training take over.

It's getting harder and harder to find fights. They see me, all ripped and braided and mean mugging, and some of the coaches think twice. But the girls are game. It just takes a lot of time. Coach always says people in Minnesota try and go too fast, they don’t have the patience to wait for the stew to be just right.

When that happens, when coach sees what he needs to see. I’ll go pro. But today it’s just another day at Spartan, getting my ass beat by Kelly and getting smashed by Ryan. Putting in the hours.


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